Partners in Dialogue

What I say to a close friend is quite different from what I say to a distant acquaintance or to my boss, even if I’m describing the same situation.  When I speak to a friend, I will, of course, relate parts of the story that I keep private from the others.  More than that, though, my very words will communicate the trust we share and the emotional warmth I feel for her, without those themes having to be spoken about explicitly.  In an analogous way, a server at a restaurant can make me feel uncomfortable and communicate his displeasure with me while never straying at all from communication with me that is formally quite polite.  These situations remind us of two things.

First, the description of a situation is never automatic–never a matter of simply correlating the correct word with the relevant fact.  On the contrary, our descriptions are always interpretive.  In other words, the way we choose to talk about something will always reveal something about us–the speakers–by revealing what aspects of the situation we deem relevant.

Second, our words will also always say something about that one to whom we speak.  In the way we choose to speak, that is, we “say” who we take the other to be.  In my example above, I implicitly tell my friend that she is my friend, even as my words explicitly only describe some event at the office.

 Before we are adults, we are children.  When we are adults, we can endure the implicit snubs and put-downs, and, indeed, the implicit flattery, that our conversational companions direct at us in the power-plays that typically shape our interpersonal lives.  When we are children, however, we have not yet built up the secure sense of self-identity that allows the adult to know who she is despite the images of her that are projected upon her through the speech of others.  Indeed, it is precisely through such projections, such implicit portrayals of self-identity, that the child comes to form a sense of who she is in the eyes of others.

We should be very careful in our conversations with our peers to ensure that our implicit communications behind our explicit words are fair and respectful.  Even more so, as parents, care-givers, educators and friends, we should be extremely careful of the way that our interactions with children are telling them who they are, whether or not this is the message we intend to be sending.

Our contemporary society encourages us to accept the myth the we are independent, self-contained individuals from start to finish.  In fact this interpretation of human nature is not true.  Our very sense of “self” is accomplished in and through our language.  We are not independently formed minds who simply use an external language as a tool to pass information to other independent minds.  On the contrary, we become individuals only in the context of being partners in dialogue.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Kirsten
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    When I was visiting my family recently, an episode of the need to talk at different registers occurred, but unfortunately I only realized this too late. It seemed like a fairly silly issue. There was a stamp that produced a confusing looking bug. My sister and her five year old daughter, Olivia, were calling it a spider. I said I thought it was an ant. Soon, a whole room of adults were chiming in. I became quite adamant about it not being a spider, given that it did not have eight legs, and it did have an articulated body. Little Olivia was surrounded by adults who were rather enjoying the debate, but in fairly loud and energetic terms. There was a great deal of wit being tossed around that would not have been understandable to a child. Suddenly, Olivia was crying…sobbing. Eventually, she was able to ask her mom, But, mommy, aren’t I right that it is a spider? We steered the conversation toward the idea that we all can be misinformed about things, make mistakes, etc. But, what I realized is that that is not how she first heard her “error.” Indeed, I can’t even be sure what she did hear altogether; but, I can think back about ways in which she must have heard me (and others) saying rather bluntly and hotly that there was no way that thing was a spider. It could have felt humiliating to her. It certainly was not the way in which I would have talked to or with a child. But, in the moment, I had pulled away from her as the context (or even part of the context), and had begun speaking on adult terms, and particularly in a style of playfulness that I could easily and comfortably take up with those present. I knew they wouldn’t think I was questioning their intelligence at a deep level; it was simply in our world a silly stamp, made by a company that really didn’t do a good job (in all of our adult opinions) of representing any clearly defined insect. In any case, I realize just how easy it can be to fail to adjust one’s register when in conversation, especially in the company of conversants of many different kinds.

  2. Karen
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    This is such a wonderful post. It has made me think about how the different contexts I inhabit play a significant role in my relations with others. I have noticed that when I try to describe a situation to someone, or tell someone a story, I often leave out key aspects of that story, while expecting the person to ‘know’ those details. For example, I might tell an acquaintance that ‘someone in the coffee shop’ said something pleasing about me. As you explained so well in the blog post, my statement communicates a lot about my experience of my own identity. Through my statement I present myself as someone who values the opinion of certain others, and I also communicates my sense of my acquaintance as someone who can relate to my story one way or another. This insight makes me wonder how noticing what I leave out can show me what different attitudes I can adopt when talking to others.

    When I tell someone about what happened at the coffee shop, I have a developed sense of the kinds of people who hang around there. The significance of what that coffee shop person said is importantly determined by my sense of the type of people who hang around that particular coffee shop. When I tell my story but leave out an account of my understanding of who hangs around the coffee shop, and why that contributes significantly to the meaning of what was said to me, I can see that I assume many things about my interlocutor. I assume she knows the coffee shop to which I refer and has a sense similar to my own of the people who hang around there. If I am correct about these assumptions, I communicate to her that we have contexts in common and thereby share in a certain perspective on the significance of what occurs in those contexts. If I am wrong, then not only have I failed to communicate what I intended to communicate, but I may also have shown myself to be entirely unaware of important differences between us, and to therefore be closed to the reality of her own distinctive perspective. These are not things I want to communicate about myself, and this is not an attitude I want influencing my interactions with others. I will have to be careful about the kinds of assumptions I make.

  3. ömer
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Language acquisition is probably an initiation for children to quite a new level of making mistakes. Mistakes in language may seem formal and unsubstantial, unlike breaking a vase or hurting somebody. And yet, as you suggest in your post, language acquisition seems to shift the child’s notion of what counts as substantial. (Similarly, I remember you talking, in the context of Plato’s “Republic”, about the importance of the child’s initiation into the mode of truth in mathematics.)

    I think this is very fascinating in itself and don’t have much to say. But Kirsten’s story about her 5 year-old niece being extremely nervous by mistakes, made me think of a tangential story about my 4 year-old nephew. So, my nephew, Nesim, is in his “Why?” phase: “Why is Austria close and Turkey far away, mommy?”, “Why is the pool blue, mommy?”, “Why did I dream yesterday?”, “Why are ants small?” etc. So one day, my sister and Nesim were looking for a bus stop. Nesim thought it was on the right, my sister on the left. They went right, the bus stop wasn’t there; they went left and saw the bus stop. My sister told him: “See, you were wrong after all.” Nesim so candidly asked: “Why was I wrong, mommy?”

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).